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Recycling Outlook 2023: Improving Plastic Recycling Rates

Jim West / Alamy Stock Photo Workers Sort Recycling
Pinning down the real recycling rates in the U.S. is difficult. EPA’s last comprehensive report is based on 2018 figures and, since then, there’s been a patchwork of studies from different sources looking through different lenses. But amidst the gray areas, the findings show one clear pattern: the U.S. would have to step up its game in a big way to meet the national recycling goal of 50 percent by 2030.

Pinning down the real recycling rates in the U.S. is difficult. EPA’s last comprehensive report is based on 2018 figures and, since then, there’s been a patchwork of studies from different sources looking through different lenses. But amidst the gray areas, the findings show one clear pattern: the U.S. would have to step up its game in a big way to meet the national recycling goal of 50 percent by 2030.

In the race toward that target, a large focus is on single-use plastics, a problematic stream.  Among pain points are insufficient collection programs. Sorely lacking secondary sorting infrastructure for hard-to-recycle plastics (multilayer, especially films and flexibles). Not enough processing facilities equipped to convert more complex material if and when it’s sorted. And missing links between buyers and sellers, as well as between other stakeholders along the value chain.

Just the same, the opportunity to make recycling work is there, according to Craig Cookson, senior director of Plastics Sustainability, American Chemistry Council. He’s encouraged by $7 billion in announced investments in chemical recycling and a few new partnerships to try and address the supply chain disconnect.

These are still small steps, with a lot to figure out to solve for systemwide problems.

“The questions are, how do you aggregate from across the country; improve quality; turn the stream into a more homogenous feedstock; and recognize economies of scale?” Cookson says.

Starting to achieve true system change will require a $17 billion investment over five years, projects The Recycling Partnership.

“We estimate that this investment would grow the [conjectured] U.S. recycling rate from 32 percent to 68 percent, delivering 169 million tons of new recyclables into the system. And the return on this investment would be $30 billion over 10 years,” says Cody Marshall, chief Optimization officer, The Recycling Partnership.

The critical components for meaningful improvement include collection infrastructure, new and updated recovery facilities, residential recycling for film, and education, according to the NGO’s 2021 Paying it Forward report.  

Cookson pauses on films and flexibles, which are among the most widely consumed, yet least-recycled, packaging materials. A huge barrier is that very few materials recovery facilities (MRFs) can sort it. Among the small number that try, the quality of bales is often inadequate to meet demands of companies clamoring for materials to meet their recycled content requirements, he says.

The handful of chemical recyclers operating at scale say they have the technical ability to convert film and other complex postconsumer plastics—with the right partners. And a few operations along the value chain have joined forces, trying to collectively advance innovative models.

Among agreements making industry headlines is a collaboration between the city of Houston, ExxonMobil, LyondellBasell, and Cyclyx. Cyclyx plans to launch a processing facility in 2024 to analyze plastics from Houston’s recycling program, based on material composition; and will sort it and produce a custom blend of feedstock according to customer specifications. ExxonMobil and LyondellBasell will sell the output.

The Cyclyx facility will reportedly have the capacity to produce 150,000 tons of plastic feedstock a year leveraging both chemical and mechanical recycling technologies.

Secondary sortation in preparation for later steps remains a vital missing link along the value chain. It’s key to connecting collections and processors looking for materials. A small number of projects are homing in on this step in the process.

“In addition to Cyclyx, Amp Robotics is doing interesting things.  It’s leveraging robotics and artificial intelligence [to better sort materials at MRFs]. And Dow and Waste Management have entered a partnership [collecting film and flexible plastics, curbside to sort and process it]. Through these innovations and investments, contaminated and hard-to-recycle materials are becoming commodity feedstock,” Cookson says.

Indiana-based chemical recycler Brightmark is turning its attention to sortation through partnerships too; incentivizing MRFs to separate plastics from nonplastics, then deliver to Brightmark what they can’t handle or can’t send to mechanical recyclers.

MRF’s offset their tipping fees and get paid for what was once a liability, while Brightmark gets adequate feedstock and lowers its sorting costs, says Bob Powell, founder and CEO of Brightmark.

Meanwhile, The Recycling Partnership is working to pump collection and processing infrastructure. The collection end is a major focus; about 40 million U.S. households have limited to no access to recycling.

In answer, The Partnership distributes grants through a program designed with a regional focus.

“With this regional system in mind, in Ohio for example, we have

worked with Rumpke to invest in equipment to improve polypropylene (PP) processing at the MRF and to improve access to polypropylene recycling in the state. 

By combining MRF grants with community programs, working with Rumpke in Columbus and Cincinnati, recycling access and education improved for 1 million households, recovering more than 1 million new pounds of polypropylene each year,” Marshall says.

On the private investor side, Rob Kaplan, founder and CEO of Circulate Capital, recently told Waste360 what his company considers to help guide its spending decisions: technology providers must be able to accept different feedstocks. The company looks for modular systems that can be set up at different locations and operate at different scales. And Kaplan wants to be sure material has value and that a supply chain is in place to bring product to market.

The American Chemistry Council assembled an action plan to keep plastic in the economy while mitigating environmental issues associated with these materials at end of life. The plan, which Cookson says ACC has begun to discuss with Congress, has five overarching recommendations:

1)Require all plastic packaging to include at least 30 percent recycled plastic by 2030 through a national recycled plastics standard.

2) Create a modern regulatory system that enables rapid scaling of advanced recycling while continuing to grow mechanical recycling.

3) Direct the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy to bring together the plastics value chain and municipalities to develop a national recycling framework for plastics.

4) Engage the National Academy of Sciences to conduct a study that compares the impacts of raw materials and use its findings to guide future policies.

5) Establish an American-designed producer responsibility system for packaging to help increase recycling access, collection, and outreach for all materials, including plastics.

Bottom line: the consensus of industry experts who promote plastics but are called on to address related sustainability problems is that there needs to be a focus on improving collections, sorting, and processing to ultimately access feedstock and turn it into new products that meet end users’ demands.

Industry trade organizations like ACC say policy will play a role.

TAGS: Plastics
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